The Ten Biggest Colorado Animal Stories of 2019

Anna Bulanova feeds nectar to rainbow lorikeets at SeaQuest, which land on her hands, arms, feet and, briefly, her head.
Anna Bulanova feeds nectar to rainbow lorikeets at SeaQuest, which land on her hands, arms, feet and, briefly, her head. Ken Hamblin
Human-animal interactions happen on a daily basis without a second thought, but when they make the news, they tend to range from terrifying to heartwarming to just plain odd. Sloths, geese, prairie dogs, wolves, buffalo and more all made headlines in Colorado in 2019. 

Here are a few of our favorite animal stories of the year:

SeaQuest Waded Into Deep Waters
SeaQuest, a national chain of “interactive aquariums,” was already controversial by the time it opened up shop in a Littleton mall in 2018. By May of this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife gave PETA and other animal-rights groups fodder to wage a full-out war on the place. In the course of revoking SeaQuest’s license to hold certain species that Parks and Wildlife regulates, the agency revealed that SeaQuest has been tangled in snafus with Colorado regulators since before it opened. Most notably, in the fall of 2018, a sloth twice accidentally burned its face on a heat lamp and didn't get adequate medical attention, prompting an investigation and animal-neglect charges for an employee (who was eventually acquitted). SeaQuest had also illegally imported several animals and failed to report several animal deaths and injuries to humans.

SeaQuest operates without a license from any Colorado agency, limiting the species it can exhibit. PETA took over a huge billboard on Lincoln Street to try to convince people not to visit the aquarium; the group also argues that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should pull SeaQuest's certifications.

Denver Got Its Goose
All hell broke loose (or did it break goose?) after Denverite broke the news in late June that Denver Parks and Recreation and the USDA were rounding up geese in parks in the wee hours of the morning to be killed, processed and turned into meat to be distributed to hungry families.

Over the summer, Denver “culled” (i.e., killed) more than 1,600 local Canada geese in an effort to manage the overpopulated species, which, as Parks and Recreation Executive Director Scott Gilmore told the Denver Post, has caused an environmental and aesthetic burden: “There’s no vegetation. They’ve eaten everything. There’s poop everywhere on the ground. There’s algae starting to bloom in the lake.”

Animal-rights activists rallied in support of preserving the Canada geese with public protests and petitions, advocating for non-lethal means to clear goose shit from sidewalks.

But Christmas is coming, and the geese are getting fat. Denver officials will assess the goose population in the spring and decide whether and how extensively to use the controversial culling tactic again.

Phish Phound Plague-Infested Prairie Dogs
Phish is no stranger to odd song lyrics, but in 2019 it also encountered a strange reality: The jam band had to cancel camping at its hugely popular three-day Labor Day event at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City to protect Phans from contracting the bubonic plague. Prairie dogs that lived on the plains there had become infected with the same disease that killed off most of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

Parks and Wildlife officials discovered in early August that prairie dogs had been bitten by plague-infested fleas, which shut down parts of Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge as well as other events at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The health department coated the prairie dog burrows with insecticide to stop the spread. But as a result of the outbreak, prairie dog colonies across roughly 250 acres reportedly died off.

While Twitter trolls couldn’t resist cracking jokes about eccentric Phish fans whom they accused of being plague-ridden already, the show went on, complete with the band changing some lyrics to go along with the hilarity. (For example, the song “Stray Dog” became “Plague Dog.")

Will Wolves Roam on the Range?
It wasn’t long ago that gray wolves roamed the high mountain plains of Colorado. But by the mid-twentieth century, over-hunting had wiped them out of the lower 48 states.

If Initiative #107 makes the 2020 ballot, Coloradans will decide whether to bring wolves back into the state next year.

Conservationists, ranchers and wildlife officials in most Western states have been debating wolf reintroduction since they returned to Yellowstone in 1995. But opponents, including many ranchers and hunters who fear wolves will decimate livestock, deer and elk populations, say it’s absurd to ask the average voter to make a wildlife biology decision.

Wolf advocates, on the other hand, say wildlife officials and politicians are either too reluctant or too beholden to agricultural interests to bring back wolves without voters telling them to do so. They argue that despite fearful media depictions, wolves pose little danger to livestock, could help restore the natural ecological balance, and even spike wolf tourism.

In other wolf-related news, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, a longtime wolf sanctuary located in Guffey, announced it will close its doors at the end of December.

Ralphie Runs Along

This year was a tough one for two Colorado universities that love their live mascots. The University of Colorado announced in November that Ralphie, the buffalo that handlers have run around Folsom Field for the past twelve seasons, will retire. While previous Ralphies have been retired because they slow down with age, athletic director Rick George said Ralphie V had actually developed a temper, running too fast and creating safety concerns. While PETA called for CU Boulder to dump the tradition of running buffaloes entirely, the school says it plans to find a sixth Ralphie for next year.

Also in 2019, U.S. Air Force Academy falcon Aurora died after 23 years as a mascot, the longest-serving Air Force falcon ever. The Academy wrote in a statement that “she was a feisty, spirited bird who commanded respect.”

Meanwhile, CSU’s 25th Cam the Ram is still going strong, though a ram's life expectancy is lower than that of buffaloes and falcons.

Kitty Got Clawed
In February, a humble Fort Collins trail runner got an unlikely fifteen minutes of fame when he fended off a mountain lion attack by killing the animal with his bare hands. Travis Kauffman was about six miles into a run in Lory State Park when he heard a rustling behind him, and turned to see a mountain lion charging him. While the lion clawed at him, Kauffman was able to pin the lion down, grab a rock, bash its head and strangle it.

National news headlines portrayed Kauffman’s triumph over the lion as a heroic feat of man versus nature, but detractors online sneered when a Colorado Parks and Wildlife examination revealed the animal to be only three or four months old and just 35 to 40 pounds. Kauffman stayed above the fray, saying he didn’t see himself as particularly heroic or strong, just lucky — especially because the cub’s mother wasn’t around.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare in Colorado. Kauffman, who in the months after the attack resumed normal life and finished his first 50K, says he recommends hiking or running with a friend and not wearing headphones.

Dogs Ruled Denver
If you think Denver is going to the dogs, you’re not wrong. Apparently there are more dogs in Denver (according to Parks and Recreation estimates, about 158,000) than there are children (according to the last U.S. Census, about 140,000).

Even more surprising is the number of dogs coming into Colorado from out of state. Colorado has strong laws and funding available for spay and neuter programs, along with a dog-friendly culture that promotes adopting from shelters instead of purchasing select breeds. So it’s a good place for dogs to end up, but doesn’t necessarily produce a lot of puppies in need of a loving home. According to statistics from the Pet Animal Care Facility Act (PACFA) program, 36,642 dogs that ended up in Colorado shelters in 2018 were transported here by rescues from states that don’t have as much doggy demand. PACFA Program Administrator Nick Fisher says that number is only increasing, so don’t expect the dog population to drop any time soon.

Bears With Us

People don’t usually intend to kill a bear when they leave trash bins and dumpsters open or a bird feeder out, or fail to clean up a campfire dinner. But this summer and fall in the mountains proved that when bears become habituated to humans, the consequences can be harmful for both species.

Aspen alone saw three bear attacks over the summer. In May, a bear bit a woman on the Hunter Creek Trail; the bear was later euthanized. In July, a bear swiped at a man at the Meadows Resort. And in August, a bear bit a restaurant manager when he tried to scare it away from a trash bin. In Jefferson County, an elderly couple fought off a bear with fists and a baseball bat after it entered their home through a screen door. And two bears attacked a man camping near Pagosa Springs. Colorado Parks and Wildlife euthanized many of the attacking bears.

Bear attacks, especially fatal ones, are rare. But bears that become accustomed to accessible food sources are more likely to seek out those sources, running into people and becoming more aggressive along the way. CPW says it’s running out of places to relocate such bears far enough away that they don’t come back, so it’s started a new communications strategy: showing the stomach contents of bears it has euthanized, which tend to contain things like bird feed, granola bars and candy wrappers. It’s been said before, but it must be said again: Don’t feed the damn bears (and don’t let them get into your food, either).

The Walking Deer
Chronic wasting disease has plagued local deer and other ungulates for years, with over half of Colorado deer herds now affected. The infectious fatal neurological condition causes weakness, excessive salivation, loss of coordination and sometimes lack of fear of humans (thus infected animals are unofficially dubbed “zombie deer”). It hasn’t been known to spread to humans, but CPW officials warn hunters not to eat meat of infected animals, and deer killed in some game-management units are required to be tested.

Efforts to manage the disease include the development of a surveillance program that will detect infected animals and test male deer on a five-year rotation, as well as a plan to intervene in the population and sex ratio of herds with more than 5 percent of adult male deer infected. Almost everything about CBD skyrocketed in 2019, including sales, Google searches and articles trying to explain what it is.

The Year of CBD

As it turns out, the purported benefits of CBD aren't limited to humans. Earlier this year, Westword profiled a mother-and-son duo that launched Trove, a CBD brand for horses, after they say CBD helped a horse with a neuromuscular condition. For dogs, it can apparently help calm separation anxiety and joint pain. And there's absolutely no shortage of it in one of the most CBD-friendly states in the nation
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming